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What Aaron Judge’s college coach makes of the rookie’s hitting surge

PHOTO: Jayne Kamin-Oncea, US PRESSWIRE

PHOTO: Jayne Kamin-Oncea, US PRESSWIRE

It was nearly seven years ago, in the fall of 2010, when Fresno State baseball coach Matt Batesole realized he had landed a special talent in 6-foot-7, 230-pound freshman outfielder Aaron Judge

Except he didn’t draw that conclusion on a baseball diamond.

“We don’t get to play any games in the fall, so we invented this football league,” Batesole told ESPN’s The Michael Kay Show on Wednesday. “Now, [Judge’s] a heck of an athlete, but I had never seen anything like this. All five guys on the other team are on the ground, squinting and wrinkling their nose and watching him run for a touchdown. When I saw that, I was like, ‘We’ve got a freak here. This guy is going to play as long as he wants in the big leagues.’

“We had to have him stop playing in the games, not because he was gonna truck someone, but I was afraid he was gonna break someone’s knee who was trying to catch him. Just a special, real different athlete.”

In lieu of signing with the Oakland Athletics after the 2010 June Amateur Draft, Judge, a multi-sport athlete, elected to play college ball in Fresno, California — just two hours south from his hometown suburb of Linden. In his freshman season, at age 19, Judge hit .358 with two home runs and 30 RBI in 55 Mountain West Conference games. In 114 games combined between his sophomore and junior campaign, he added 16 more homers and 63 more RBI, while slashing .339/.457/.557 with an OPS of 1.014.

With those exceptional numbers already under his belt, Judge elected to forego his senior season, and entered the 2013 draft. On the first night, he was selected 32nd overall by the New York Yankees. Four years later, he is making his presence known, not only in the Bronx, but also across the major leagues.

In short, the 25-year-old rookie has taken the game by storm. Judge’s 22 home runs on the year is the most in baseball. His .338 average, along with his 49 RBI and 58 runs scored, makes him a legitimate contender for American League Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, and even Triple Crown honors. His torrid hitting pace has been so astounding, that he’s become the current leader in All-Star Game votes and wins above replacement (4.0) within a month, surpassing Angels’ superstar Mike Trout in both categories.

While the first three months have almost played out like a dream for Judge and New York, luck and success can turn posthaste in a fickle sport like baseball. Batesole hopes that his former player remains level-headed and prudent, and to drive that point home, he made sure to speak with Judge in April.

“We’ve just got to make sure that he keeps his feet on the ground and keeps going in the direction he’s going,” Batesole said. “On his first day off this year, I told him, ‘Look dude, bars across America are full of guys who had one good month. You haven’t done anything yet except piss the rest of the league’s pitchers off and now they all want you. You’re better off to shut your phone off, get some alone time, call mom, give thanks. I don’t want to hear that you had dinner with Jay-Z and Beyonce tonight on your first day off.'”

Based on Judge’s shown temperament — someone who deflects attention and praise and lauds his teammate’s achievements — the odds of him appearing in the celebrity spotlight is slim. But the well mannered, charming slugger does have another side to him, however, according to Batesole.

“That sweet kid, that big beautiful smile you see, don’t be fooled by that,” Batesole said. “This kid will blow you up in a second. With the travel they go through, you’ve got to have a little bit of a mean streak to get through those times, especially late in the season, and he’s got that.

“You think about a guy who’s got his teammate’s back. At some point there’s gonna be something that’s gonna happen with the Red Sox or somebody else. Don’t get in that boy’s way — he’ll be right in the middle of it.”

To Batesole, it’s those types of characteristics that make Judge impulsive and dynamic on the field and at the plate, even if it appears too risky at times. 

“That’s in his DNA. That’s how he plays and how he lives,” Batesole said. “Guys that have his kind of heart, they don’t sleep good at night. He’s gonna slam into walls as you’ve been seeing, he’s gonna end up in the seats as you’ve been seeing, he’s gonna steal bases, he’s gonna do things all throughout the year.

“That’s a beautiful beautiful thing and will it probably cost his career a few years at the end, yeah, it probably will. But the ones that we do get to watch are gonna be a whole lot more fun.”

Fun, Judge appears to be plenty of. So far, he’s turned the home run into a contest with a tape measure, as his 495-foot blast against the Orioles last Sunday was marked as the farthest hit ball this season. Along with distance and launch angle, Judge has also incorporated speed into his homers. He’s broken his own exit velocity records, and holds four of the top-five exit velocity marks in the Statcast era (121.1 mph is the record he set last Saturday).

But unlike the conventional slugger, Judge has exemplified the importance of being a well-rounded hitter, which makes his run even more prodigious. Despite having 75 strikeouts in 222 at-bats, Judge has managed to hit .300 when down 0-2 in the count, and with two strikes on him, he’s slashed .273/.373/.531. 

Judge no longer chases — he no longer presses. He’s become forbearing, and that’s what Batesole likes more than the home run totals.

“What’s gonna seperate him is what you’re seeing him do with two strikes,” Batesole said. “You’re seeing him use the other side of the field. Yankee Stadium is built for him. He hits those long line drives to right field as far as anybody. Eventually, four of five years from now when he gets to be a veteran, he’s gonna get an extra eight or 12 [home runs] a year that he’s gonna hit to right field that other guys can’t hit.”

This weekend, Judge will be close to home in Oakland, and Batesole will be in the stands at the Coliseum, cheering his kid on.

“I watch every tape and every one of his at-bats,” Batesole. “We talk or text whenever something comes up. The [Fresno players] love him because he’s one of the boys. When he’s at the field, he’s just one of us. And that where he’s in his element.”

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